DeJong emerging in Cardinals cleanup role

CHUCK KING

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — Paul DeJong is proving he can be the answer to one of the most pressing spring training questions for the Cardinals.

At the spring's midpoint, DeJong's bat is easing concerns about the lineup void created by the loss of Marcel Ozuna to free agency.

“I know we lost Ozuna and there's going to be some opportunities there in the middle of the order,” DeJong said. “Me growing into who I believe I can be as a hitter, my potential, that fits right in with my opportunity this year.”

DeJong's four homers entering Saturday's game against Houston was tied for the Grapefruit League lead. His 1-for-3 performance against the Astros actually hurt DeJong's spring average, dropping it below .500.

It's not that the 26-year-old DeJong hasn't flashed power in the past. Last year he became the first Cardinals shortstop to hit 30 homers in a season. Home runs, however, aren't his focus — either now or during the season.

Both he and the Cardinals realize they will need more than the career-high 78 RBIs he produced last season while primarily hitting fifth or third.

“Those situations where I'm watching other good players, the guys that drive in a lot of runs, it's the ways they approach those runners-in-scoring-position at-bats,” DeJong said. “It seems like it's just about getting a single, really. (Albert) Pujols or Miguel Cabrera, guys like that, they're not hitting home runs with guys on second. They're getting a base hit. Just a little bit of a change in approach, I think, will help me a lot.”

The Cardinals' cleanup hitter in every game he started last season, Ozuna hit 29 homers while driving in 89 runs in 129 games. That's a large chunk of production to replace from a National League Central Division title winner that only slugged .410 as a team, No. 25 in MLB.

In recent spring games DeJong consistently hit in the No. 4 spot, providing protection for Paul Goldschmidt.

“Whoever hits behind him just needs to take a good at-bat,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said of Goldschmidt.

Shildt does have other options at clean-up.

If Tyler O'Neill wins the starting left field job and demonstrates that he can cut down on his strikeouts, his power potential profiles nicely in the fourth spot. And should Matt Carpenter's hard contact rate return to what it had been prior to 2019, he could make teams pay for pitching around Goldschmidt.

If Shildt chooses anyone other than Goldschmidt to hit clean-up — the slugger hit either third or second nearly all of last season — he'll be selecting a player without significant major league experience in the role.

“They have to come from somewhere,” Shildt said. “Everybody just doesn't start being the guy. Paul's (Goldschmidt) been there. He's a great candidate for it, but we've got other guys, too.”

NOTEWORTHY: St. Louis placed Yairo Munoz on unconditional release waivers after the utility infielder returned to his Dominican Republic home without permission following a hamstring injury earlier in the week. Munoz appeared in 88 games for the Cardinals last season.

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